Benefits of a talking cure

29th March 2013 at 00:00
With the right groundwork you can encourage healthy debate on contentious issues - and air your own views. Chris Hudson reports

It can happen on any day, in any classroom. A heated debate starts about a lesson point: one student says something controversial or just plain wrong, another chips in and a third asks for your opinion.

Fielding contentious issues in classroom debate is all part of modern teaching, and we know the tricks of handling it with distancing language ("Some say this, and others say that"), passing the buck ("In this school, our policy is ...) or shutting it down with a look at the clock and a promise to return to it at another time.

There are some issues where you know that saying what you really think or feel could land you in trouble. It may be because it is a controversial topic, or because your opinion places you in the minority. So do you clam up or blurt out the first thing that comes into your head? But it is possible to express your opinion in a more constructive way, which will prompt greater learning and even expand the views of the young minds in your charge.

Potential for conflict

Any teacher working in religious education will be used to these risky areas, but teachers of other subjects may be less familiar with conflict. Some subjects contain more contentious material than others. If you are planning a lesson about relationships, it does not take the wisdom of Solomon to predict that sexuality and gay marriage will come up. But controversy is there in other subjects, too. The upcoming centenary in 2014 of the First World War will once again provide a "valuable opportunity" to air all those insults about the Germans, for example.

Education is never value-free. But it is always good to encourage students to debate, provided you keep them on topic.

Your classroom should be a safe place to discuss contentious issues. If your students cannot do so there in an appropriate manner, where can they? But you have to choose your ground wisely, especially when the issue touches you personally. Every school has the responsibility to provide for a child's spiritual, moral, social and cultural education. And parents and carers are relying on you to provide their children with a moral environment when you stand in loco parentis.

For some students, a school is the most moral environment they will ever experience, with its formal and informal system of rules, values, rewards and sanctions. But the question remains: whose morals and values are being taught? Is it society's, the school's or your own? The answer lies not merely in what you teach but in how. Choose carefully and be proactive. Look ahead, consider your lesson content and plan for some interesting discussions. Your own beliefs can then become a part of that mix, and a truly professional asset.

Framing the debate

It is all about "framing". Some teachers are upfront with students, explaining their position right from the start. Others try not to volunteer personal opinions unless they are asked for them. But here comes the crucial point: there has to be an element of honesty when we express personal beliefs and we should be willing to concede that there are contestable areas. That can be hard because teachers do not like being weak. But if we can do this, discussion becomes an even more powerful teaching tool.

It is too easy to adopt a loaded stance: "I have simple common sense; you are obviously biased; she is a bigot." But if, as teachers, we show a little humility (allowing for other points of view while submitting our own opinion), that framing may be the most influential way we have of sharing what we believe. It will be coming from a position not of dominance but of nurture. This approach shows respect - and all young people want to be respected and need to learn to respect others.

The way you speak and listen to your students will also embody the things that matter to you. Every student enters the classroom with preconceptions that you have to work with, or overcome, to meet your objectives. But as their teacher, you are the most important factor in making that learning happen. So who you are is going to be vital - especially when you come up against a prejudice or contestable opinion.

Interesting questions

Students are entitled to an education that shows them how to handle diverse viewpoints - and teachers have an excellent opportunity to model how strong opinions should be expressed and shared. RE professionals have something useful to offer their colleagues and their school ethos, because they have established skills in identifying and handling personal beliefs, including their own (see panel). They generally understand that the classroom is no place for proselytising but that it can encourage the sharing of insights and prompt interesting questions.

Most students are still formulating their views on life, so while airing their (current) beliefs is an important stage in their personal development, it will not be the last. Therefore, the best approach when discussing a big issue, after getting their immediate reactions, is to say: "What's the most interesting question we can ask about this?" In primaries, younger students often benefit from having regular "talk partners" to ease them in to this kind of positive discussion.

In my workshops for the charity Barnabas in Schools, I use a large die to generate interesting questions about the chosen story, with "What ...", "Who ...", "Why ...", "What if ...", "I wonder ..." and "How ..." written on its faces. When it comes to student feedback, all questions are allowed, although I use my professional judgement to highlight particularly apposite queries.

Many students are so intent on making their own contribution that they do not hear what others are saying unless they are given a reminder. In the classroom, questions can be written on Post-it notes for display on a "dialogue wall". You will know you are getting somewhere when students start volunteering answers to each other's questions, because that shows a high level of engagement and a shared moral vocabulary.

Can it work with an awkward class? Not so well. You probably need to crack the behaviour issue first, particularly if you have students who confuse self-worth with dominance over their immediate environment. Some classes have to be spoonfed to help them take on levels of conversational responsibility but others will be ready to tackle it head-on. Crucially, this is not necessarily related to academic ability. Whatever their levels of literacy, most students are capable of speaking and listening. Children with behaviour issues often find that real talk gives them a chance to shine.

Distance and objectivity

Distance or objectify a debate, so the issue does not appear to be about anyone in the room. Stories are brilliant for this.

Once, I was exploring Bible narratives about justice with Year 6 (P6) students from an underprivileged area using John 8.3-11. This tells of the way Jesus dealt with a lynch mob intent on stoning an adulterous woman to death. Kneeling, I tried to tell the story from Jesus' point of view. With a tray of sand and a rock placed on the floor in front of me, I described the crowd of men demanding punishment.

Jesus wrote some words in the sand and demanded that, since they were talking about keeping the law, could the man who had never broken any law step forward to cast the first stone? After an awkward silence, the crowd dispersed. When they were gone, Jesus told the woman to leave in peace, with a warning to abide by the law and not to offend again. It is a lesson in moral thought, second chances and the notion of redemption.

My class was transfixed. I asked for their own questions. And out they poured:

- What did he write in the sand? (Nobody knows - the Bible left it unrecorded.)

- Why bring her here to Jesus? Why not kill her where they found her?

- Why didn't they bring the man she was with?

- How did they catch her? Was it a setup?

- If she knew it was against their law, why did she do it?

- Why did Jesus stand up for her?

The questions showed a developing awareness of how justice can mean different things depending on where you stand. But there is also a lesson here for me, the teacher. I have strong opinions about violence against women - but also about the way sexualised behaviour in young people can cause them all sorts of heartache in the future. I did not talk about my views, of course. But I was able to shape the story experience to get the class wondering about precisely these issues. They began to discuss their inherent beliefs about men and women, and talked about how impulsive actions can have unforeseen consequences. They also debated the issue of being judgemental, and how that carries dangers too.

This is just one example of how to frame your class. It is a good format for dealing with contentious issues and embracing your own views without forcing them on the class in a way that would squash, rather than provoke, discussion. In this way you can remain true to your beliefs and let your students explore theirs.

Chris Hudson works for Barnabas in Schools (part of the charity BRF), which supports primaries in teaching about Christianity as part of the RE syllabus.


Some rules for handling controversial issues in the classroom l Value reason-giving. Students should be encouraged to think skilfully and to reflect on, and take responsibility for, the beliefs that shape their behaviour. Lead them, with questions, into areas that will allow them to continue and develop their belief in lifelong learning. l Accept contestability and value self-awareness. Recognise that your own beliefs may be controversial and frame your language accordingly. Be aware that your beliefs can have an impact on your approach to teaching - and students' learning.

- Be open. If framed correctly, openness can be a professional asset. But be prepared to answer questions and talk about your own beliefs when this is appropriate. The older the students, the more likely it is that teachers can be open in an appropriate way. They should use their professional judgement about how far to go.

Source: Every One Matters in the Classroom: a practice code for teachers of RE (2009) Religious Education Council for England and Wales. bit.lyYC1NH2


How willing are you to share your own beliefs in the classroom?

David Hampshire, county adviser for RE in Cornwall, ran an online survey of RE teachers. It revealed the following:

"Teachers were asked if they openly shared their beliefs with their students; only a quarter said they definitely didn't but 15 per cent said they went out of their way to avoid letting students know about their beliefs.

"What was interesting was that some teachers were much more likely to share their beliefs than others. Half of Anglican and nearly half of Catholic respondents openly shared their beliefs with their students but this was true for 67 per cent of gnostics and 89 per cent of atheists; 55 per cent of atheist respondents would be happy if a student shared their beliefs as a result of their teaching, compared with only 10 per cent of Catholic teachers."

Source: Hampshire, D. (2012) "Giving of yourself - the RE teacher and teaching RE", REtoday, 293.

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